Have you ever wondered how app conglomerates like Supercell or King manage to consistently publish apps that dominate the top spots in the games category? It's not necessarily because they are better at making apps than you (well they might be, however, that's a whole other topic).
The simple fact is that they have the resources and the knowledge to get almost any app into the charts. To determine where an app sits in the charts, each app store implements a ranking algorithm that considers a range of variables. For the sake of keeping this blog post short and readable, I am just going to focus on Apple's ranking algorithm.
The app ranking algorithms used are not something that is available to the public. This is to stop app developers from learning the algorithm and cheating the system. Before 2011, it was largely believed that rankings (in the Apple App Store) were mainly derived from the number of downloads that each respective app received. However, in April of 2011, apps that had been comfortably dominating the charts had an unexpected reshuffling. Most significantly were the Facebook app, which jumped from #13 to #1 in the free charts and the Skype app, which moved from #33 to #15 in the free charts (Gigaom, 2011). While this algorithm change was never officially recognised by the App Store, experts agree that the algorithm change was made to discourage app developers from using paid install services.
While the algorithm remains a secret, experts speculate that there are four factors that influence rankings on the App Store; installs, retention, sales and ratings. Venture capitalist Michael Silverwood believes that the current algorithm looks something like this:
"Ranking = (# of installs weighted for the past few hours) + (# of installs weighted for the past few days) + REVIEWS (star rating + number of reviews) + Engagement (# of times app opened etc.) + Sales ($)"(Venture Beat, 2014)
The above formula was taken from a Venture Beat article by Michael Silverwood, where Silverwood backs up his theory. Silverwood uses viral app Flappy Bird to justify his findings. "In earlier versions of the game, there was a “rate” button at the end of each play session, and this button was placed in the same location that the player would tap to play. As a result, when the user wanted to continue playing, it was easy to hit the rate button instead." (Venture Beat, 2014). This resulted in Flappy Bird receiving an obscene number of reviews (it is also worth noting that people were writing reviews about the game because it became a popular internet meme). In it's best month Flappy Bird received over 700, 000 reviews, to put this into perspective App Annie reports that Candy Crush received about 400, 000 reviews in it's first year and a half on the App Store (Venture Beat, 2014). To clarify - Flappy Bird received more reviews in a month than Candy Crush did in a year and a half! Silverwood believes that this ridiculous number of reviews caused the apps unprecedented rapid rise to #1 in the games category. This is a very clear example of reviews influencing App Store rankings just as much as downloads do.
As mentioned earlier, both the Facebook and Skype apps were positively affected by the 2011 algorithm change. This is because the new algorithm took engagement (the number of times the app gets used and the length of time it gets used) into account. If you are a young person, chances are you spend way too much time on your smartphone, and chances are the majority of that time is spent on social apps like Facebook and Skype. In Facebook's 2014 Q2 report, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that US consumers spend an average of 40 minutes on Facebook per day! And according to a 2015 Verto Analytics report, U.S. users spend a collective 335,000 years on the Facebook app every month... WOW! Given this level of engagement, is is no surprise that Facebook jumped all the way from #13 to #1 in the free charts. This tells us that the new algorithm weights engagement very heavily.
Returning to the rhetorical question that I posed at the beginning of this article - how do app developers like Supercell or King dominate the app store? Well, it's because they know this algorithm better than everyone else. And they design all of their apps with engagement, reviews, sales and downloads in mind. By implementing a complex marketing strategy called app store optimisation (ASO), they are able to take advantage of app store search and ranking algorithms to ensure that their apps get as much visibility as possible. This combined with huge marketing budgets and the ability to freely promote new apps in their already popular apps, results in an unparalleled level of app visibility. While individual or small developers will struggle to match the marketing efforts of these big companies - with enough research, it is entirely possible to match their ASO efforts. And with a consistent combination of effort, skill, testing and luck... you might even make it into the App Store Charts.